Buddhist meditation practices are not intended to be relaxation techniques. Relaxation is one of the first welcome results of meditation, but is by no means its final goal. This may seem an obvious point, but its also one frequently forgotten. Inexperienced meditators find it hard to resist indulging in the pleasant feeling of relaxation as a reward for their efforts in overcoming distraction. By doing so their mindfulness weakens, their mind become dull, and their meditation session is derailed.
The nature of water is such that it can be dyed or dirtied, be heated or cooled, and it can flow swiftly or stagnate. But whatever is added to water or whatever transformations it is subjected to, water always remains simply water.
Two monks arriving at a river ford noticed a beautiful young woman sitting under a tree, crying. She told them that she was frightened and lost and didn’t dare to cross the swift-flowing river by herself. The younger of the monks felt sorry for the woman. He decided that although it would be an offense against the monastic discipline, compassion should come first, and he would carry the woman across the river.
Theravāda takes a rather modest and downbeat approach to helping others. Whereas the Bodhisattva vow states boldly, ‘Suffering beings are beyond number; I vow to save them all’, the Theravādas are more circumspect. They say, ‘Suffering beings are beyond number; I shall try to help reduce the suffering whenever I can, as best as I can’.
The first meditation object given to new monastics – one embedded in the Pabbajjā novice ordination ceremony – is a contemplation of five parts of the human body: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth and skin. These constitute the first five items of the list of 32 body components found throughout the Suttas.
We have a dysfunctional relationship with our mental states. Through ignorance of the true nature of phenomena we identify with mental states, we grasp onto them. This is the cause of much unnecessary suffering. The problem cannot be remedied by thinking. It can be remedied by a meditation practice embedded in the Eightfold Path.
In 1978, I spent the Rains Retreat with Ajahn Sumedho’s small monastic community in the English countryside, close to Oxford. Shortly before I left to see ordination as a monk in Thailand, a man called B. arrived to take the place I was vacating. Until recently, B. had been a Zen trainee in Japan. On his return to England he had felt drawn towards Theravada.
Meditation is the cultivation of wakefulness. It begins with us learning how to be awake to our meditation object, moment by moment. As it progresses we learn to be awake to the whole of our body and mind. We observe, for example, how the posture of the body and its aches and pains affect the mind. We observe the various ways in which mental agitation and its absence affect the body….
Be flexible in your approach. Ajahn Chah once said: ‘If obstacles come low, jump over them. If they come high, duck under them.
Don’t try to get rid of thoughts during meditation; it gives them too much importance. Simply shine the light of awareness on thoughts and they will disappear by themselves.